Middle East

Middle East

Iran Is No Model for Iraq

Iraqi Shiite Clerics
Iraqi Shiite clerics attend Friday afternoon prayers in Baghdad, Feb. 20, 2004 (Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP-Getty Images).

Today, as we go through the most critical period in the transition to a new political system in Iraq, we are facing heated discussions about what that system will be. This is the period when the [U.S.-led coalition] will hand over power [to Iraqis] and when a new government will be formed to administer the country after the occupation ends. The new system is supposed to be democratic, federal, and pluralistic. The conflict, now, arises from certain parties’ insistence on changing course and moving in a totally different direction from the one we had agreed to take.

Islamist [read Shiite] factions believe that they have a chance, perhaps their last, to establish the Islamic republic they have always dreamed of establishing in Iraq—even if it comes at the cost of the other factions. These Islamist factions consider the system in Iran democratic. At the same time, they see that the definition of federalism in current Iraqi political discourse remains ambiguous. And so they see an opportunity to move away from the kind of federalism the Kurds would like to see and replace it with some kind of mere autonomy.

They face a serious problem in the many factions that will need to have a role in the new system. The Islamists know the Iranian system doesn’t allow for much pluralism. Yet they believe the Iranian system provides a model for Iraqi federalism: There will be room enough for everyone to participate, but within the framework of an Islamic republic. Of course, nobody knows what the contours of this republic might be, or what enticements secular parties might be offered to persuade them to accept such a system.

Federalism has been rejected by some factions with nationalist tendencies, including supporters of the former regime and Iraq’s neighbors who have continually interfered in the country’s internal affairs. Federalism is strongly supported by the Americans and the British in spite of the American’s opposition to the form of federalism the Kurds would like to see. This U.S. opposition comes at the behest of the United States’ allies on Iraq’s borders.

No one—not Iraqis, not Iraq’s neighbors, and certainly not the United States and Britain, the real major players on the Iraqi political scene—has ever supported the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iraq. Nevertheless, some religious political leaders dream of holding power and willfully try to make the dream of establishing an Islamic republic come true.

Islamists are trying to mix or confuse two concepts: the separation of religion and politics and the separation of religion and the state. If they succeed in giving clerics and religious parties significant influence in politics, they will have a beachhead in their struggle to get clerics placed in powerful positions and establish an Islamic government, similar to Iran’s system after the Iranian Revolution. Iran’s experience, in which all powers save the clerics were excluded from the Iranian political scene in a very short time, can be repeated in Iraq. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to consider the Mojahedin-e Khalq [a revolutionary guerrilla movement first opposed to the shah and then to Khomeini], then the most powerful organization in Iran, an enemy and finished it politically because giving it power would have contradicted the concept of wilayat al-faqih [the right of Islamic jurists to rule]. So the Mojahedin-e Khalq ran away and became an enemy of the Iranian regime. It also fell into an alliance with the Iraqi Baath party. This error sent the Mojahedin, who had been considered one of the most important agents in the toppling of the Shah’s regime, on their final, fatal fall. The Mojahedin had patriotic and secular tendencies.

Like the Mojahedin-e Khalq, the Iranian Communist Party (ICP) was severely exhausted by the Shah’s regime and its SAVAK security service. But the ICP, thanks to its political experience and sound thinking, did not fall as the Mojahedin-e Khalq did and kept working inside Iran, if ineffectually.

Democracy means that civil society dominates. The army stands aloof from politics and does not interfere with political decisions. Likewise, civil-society organizations should not be under the control of the authorities. These organizations express the wishes and interests of their members. In a civil society, legislators are elected independently, without the intervention of the authorities. The country’s constitution must express the will of all the people, from across the political spectrum, and the judiciary must be totally independent. These are the features of a civil society. The question is: Is there such a federal, pluralistic system in Iran?

The only difference between Iran and the ancient Islamic state is a formal one. When the first Islamic state was established, it considered itself the representative of Islam. So the state was the representative of religion, God, and His caliph who ruled in His name. And so whoever disobeyed the caliph disobeyed God in heaven. This has been the relationship between the common man and the authorities in Islamic states ever since they were established. There is always a confrontation between man and religion. Rulers govern people by force justified by the will of God.

The Umawis [or the Umayyad Dynasty, which ruled from 661-750,] employed many clerics and scholars who produced a vast corpus of work on this subject that is still being used today. Although the Shiites were considered to be the opposition at the time, they have benefited from this cultural heritage of the Islamic state in its ancient form. But the essence of relations between the common man and the authorities remains the same.

The Umawi state, unlike the Rashidi [or “rightly guided” caliphs, who] preceded it, was changed into a kingdom whose rulers reigned in the name of religion, a reactionary development after the first Caliphate. When the new Umawi caliphs inherited authority, they also inherited all the other divine authorities and ruled by a force derived from God, even if they were alcoholics who tore out the pages of the Quran after a night of heavy drinking. This meant that the will of the people was totally canceled in their relations with the authorities. They had no right to appoint or depose a caliph. They had no power—legislative, executive, or judicial—because all of these powers came from God, as represented on Earth by the caliph. What is reactionary about this kind of system is that the caliph was not elected. If power is inherited, people have no hope for justice.

Even though the modern Islamic state (And here I’m excluding the Taliban in Afghanistan because they were so far removed from any form of civilization) does not recognize hereditary power, it is essentially the same as the Umawi or Abbasid caliphates.